Every time I’m in Israel, I marvel at what the people of Israel have achieved in just a couple of generations. Less than 50 years ago, the reality of life in Israel was subsistence-level farm communities with dirt roads, insubstantial housing that was broiling in the summer and numbingly cold in the winter, a bare-bones health and social-welfare structure, a business community struggling to find its feet, an airport that wasn’t much more than a Quonset hut, and most notably, just one television station that showed mostly 1950s American westerns. Talk about deprivation.
When you look around Israel now, you see a standard of living unsurpassed in the world, one of the most innovative and productive economies in the West, state-of-the-art facilities and institutions, and a can-do attitude that is absolutely awe-inspiring.
None of this metamorphosis occurred organically or accidentally. The modern miracle that is Israel is the legacy of a generation of pioneers and builders, many of whom came to Israel from the ashes of post-war Europe or arrived after being expelled from neighboring Arab countries. Their courage, foresight, perseverance and ingenuity were the building blocks of the modern State of Israel, and every Jew on this planet owes them a debt of recognition and gratitude.
Two of those newcomers were my Aunt Malka and Uncle Nachum. They crawled out of the Nazi concentration and work camps and made their way to Israel in time to witness the creation of the independent State of Israel in 1948. They made their new home in an agricultural Moshav and spent nearly 20 years as dairy farmers, one of the toughest and most back-breaking ways you could make a living in the era before dairy farming was mechanized.
My uncle was very prominent in the Moshav movement and those responsibilities took up more and more of his time as the years went by, meaning my Aunt took on an ever-increasing workload on the farm. Did I mention she also gave birth to 4 children who all turned out to be accomplished and contributing members of Israeli society, with families and children of their own?
Deprivation, wars, extreme physical exertion, financial pressures; nothing fazed Nachum and Malka. They were consistently positive and radiated confidence that was infectious. They were also incredibly gracious and generous hosts. Whenever one of their family members would visit from overseas (or even a friend of one of their family members), they were so proud of the Israel they helped to build that they would make sure every visitor would see as much of the country as they could squeeze in during their visit.
There are two anecdotes about my Aunt and Uncle that illustrate just how special they were.
Whenever any of her children would complain about something or other (which is what kids do, Israeli or otherwise), my Aunt would remind the offending child that the cup is always half-full and that they should be grateful for whatever blessings this world bestowed on them. Coming from a Holocaust survivor, those words carried extra weight and to honor my Aunt and the encouragement and inspiration she provided every day of her life, all of her children and her nephews and nieces have a picture of a half-full wine cup hanging on a wall in our homes.
My most vivid memory of my Uncle comes from the Yom Kippur War when I accompanied my Uncle as he visited the homes of Moshavnik widows whose husbands had died in the early days of the War. In each home, he asked the women how he could help them, he would listen carefully, note their requests and then he would ensure that those brave women and their families received whatever assistance and support they needed. Somehow, he always seemed to know what words of empathy and kindness would comfort those who had just endured unimaginable loss.
My Aunt and Uncle have passed on but they must have died with smiles on their faces when they contemplated their contributions to Israel’s development and the large and ever-growing family they left behind.
Those of us in the Diaspora (and even some Israelis if truth be told) sometimes forget that modern Israel is the ‘estate’ bequeathed to all of us by a couple of generations of the strongest, toughest, bravest and most big-hearted people this world has witnessed. I am forever grateful to my Aunt and Uncle and to all the other pioneers whose monument is the modern and confident State of Israel.